Study Centers and Counselors Give Student-Athletes Academic Support

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Football, basketball, baseball, gymnastics. College sports are a way of life in the South. Fans pack into stadiums or glue themselves to TV’s to watch their favorite teams battle it out. But the pressure on a young person to succeed on the field or court is only half the battle. College athletes are also expected to succeed in the classroom. To conclude the Southern Education Desk series “All in the Game,” Mississippi Public Broadcasting‘s Paul Boger reports on academic expectations for college athletes and what schools do to make sure students are making the grade.

You may have seen the stereotypical dumb jock on shows such as Spike TV’s “Blue Mountain State.” The whole program is about a group of football players who just want to play and party.

But the days of the dumb jock caricature may be numbered.

Over the past decade, data collected by college sport’s governing body, the NCAA, shows a rise in athlete graduation rates. It’s thanks in part to an accountability model known as the Academic Progress Rate.

APR assigns points to individual programs. Each scholarship athlete earns one point for staying in school and another for being academically eligible. The team’s points are then added up, divided by the number of point’s possible and then multiplied by 1,000. Teams that fall below the benchmark score of 930 are placed on probation. Schools continuing to fail can be penalized.

Surina Dixon, women’s basketball coach at Jackson State University, says meeting APR standards have changed the way coaches approach academics.

“So it actually changes the way coaches are even recruiting now.” says Dixon. “You have to get a certain level of kid to make sure that they’re doing their work and that they’re keeping a certain type of GPA so that your academic progress rate doesn’t fall below a benchmark that would cause you a penalty or a reason to be put on probation.”

And it’s not just the coaches that are putting more emphasis on academic success. Schools themselves are devoting more resources to helping athletes achieve in the classroom.

Derek Cowherd, who oversees the FedEx Student-Athlete Academic Support Center at the University of Mississippi, covers the big and small things to help students perform well in the classroom and graduate.

“We have little things like the FedEx Countdown Clocks so that they can know 239 days until graduation,” he says.

The multi-million dollar academic support facility located next to the school’s stadium is a busy place. Ole Miss has roughly 400 student-athletes, and all of them are required to come here for tutoring, study hall or meetings with academic advisors. But a lot of them come just to hang out.

Cowherd says there’s been a strident re-commitment over the past decade or so to ensure that all student-athletes are, in fact, student’s first.

“It’s really hard for a student to fail because we’ve really thought of everything,” Cowherd says. “But there are some that do. We’re really blessed. I’ve been here since 2012, and we really pride ourselves on making sure that we take care of the first things first. Because if we don’t, they don’t graduate.”

Junior, Biology major Brady Bramlett is a pitcher for on the Ole Miss baseball team. He’s also the vice-chair of the NCAA Division I National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a group that offers insight to regulators on how rules and policies affect student-athletes. Bramlett says the academics first mentality has trickled down to students.

“We’re here for a reason,” Bramlett says. “We’re here to play the sport we love because we’re recruited to come here to play that sport, but we’re also here to get a degree. You only have a certain amount of throws your arm will allow. You only have a certain amount of miles that your feet will allow you to run. But a degree will last you a long time.”

That pressure to succeed can be daunting, says Arielle Wallace, a junior on the Ole Miss track and field team.

“You see posters around saying ‘This is the new normal.’” Wallace says. “So it does feel like we’re being held to higher standards and trying to keep up with them. You like hearing that people hold you to such high esteem and that they think you can do more than you think you’re capable of, but at the same time it’s kind of suffocating just a little bit.”

The next Academic Progress Report will be sent to schools next May. Schools that make the marks will get to take the field. Those that don’t will face penalties.

This report is supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Find the entire “All in the Game” series at www.southerneducationdesk.org.

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